Many years ago, the summer before leaving to do my undergraduate work, I interned at Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, a children’s theatre in Washington, D.C. I had my first real experience with puppetry that summer, a show called Dino Rock, an acclaimed puppetry performance for children. It was terribly cute—the puppets were crafted with much care and attention to detail, and to my surprise, the music was smart and witty and upbeat. My inner five-year-old loved it.
I’d been hearing much buzz about a show called Who’s Hungry-West Hollywood, a puppet play by Dan Froot and Dan Hurlin exploring hunger and homelessness in West Hollywood. I was immediately taken aback by power of the work. It immediately sent me on a hunt for poetry for mature audiences, strong, transformative work that uses puppetry as a conduit for discussing real issues.
A few days ago, I sat down with Amber West, a Brooklyn-based poet, playwright, dramaturg, teaching artist and PhD candidate to discuss her collective, Alphabet Arts, and their upcoming project Puppets & Poets, an evening of experiments and performances meshing puppetry and poetry.
Born in California, Amber West began dabbling in poetry in her youth, also dabbling in theatre for a bit as well, finding that writing stuck because she enjoyed the process of creating, polishing and finessing words until she had a piece of writing that she was happy with. She attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, and received a B.A. in Literature/Creative Writing. After completing her undergraduate work, she worked for Americorps’ Volunteers in Service to America and taught creative writing. She received a MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and is a doctoral student at the University of Connecticut.
All of this being said, West is so very down to earth. Degrees and experience aside, her true passion is arts education. Noting that access to arts is slim among under-served and under-resourced youth, especially now that arts programs are being pulled from public schools, she made it her business to dive head-first into arts education and arts activism. “[The arts] are about getting people to understand their own power. The power to create. The power to change the world around you,” she explains.
Why poetry and puppetry? For West, combining poetry and puppetry blurs the lines between art and entertainment rather than polarizing the two art forms. “Puppetry gets associated with the low. That it’s entertainment. It’s a low art. And poetry is the one that’s considered high art. Almost to the point of being inaccessible,” she explains. Honoring poetry as an oral tradition is of importance to West as well. “I do like writing for the page,” she says, “but I’m interested in how poems on the page come to life on the stage. Poetry, in the first place, was an oral art form, a performative art form. It really has become all about the page.”
When I explain that I hadn’t really been exposed to puppetry for mature audiences, Amber revealed that there are thriving puppetry communities in New York, San Fransisco and Atlanta. West recalls one of her first puppet shows for mature audiences, a performance by San Francisco based puppetry company Lunatique Fantastique, that explored issues of sexual abuse. Created by artistic director Liebe Wetzel, Snake in the Basement: The Prosecution of Rev. Bill Pruitt (2000), explored the true story of six women who accused Reverend Bill Pruitt of sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s at a school for missionary kids located in Africa. All of the puppets used in the show were composed of found objects. She remembers certain images within the work that have stayed with her since experiencing the performance: Pruitt, made of newspaper with a long, phallic nose, and the young girls depicted by white, cloth napkins, withering and shrinking and folding into themselves after experiencing the abuse.
City of Hamburgers was West’s first official foray into puppetry and poetry, or what she calls puppet poems. A block party on her street was the catalyst for creating a puppet poem performance on her front porch in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, where she lived at the time. City of Hamburgers, a children’s book by Mike Reiss, is about young protagonist Jeffrey who yearns to hear stories about his grandmother’s life in Hamburg, Germany, rather than the tired fairytales that children are usually offered. West worked with dozens of friends and collaborators to build a 10-foot long stage, to create two dozen hamburger puppets and to compose live music to accompany the show. It was a hit on the block.
Noticing that City of Hamburgers was so well-received, West founded Alphabet Arts collective. She enlisted the assistance of friends and neighbors to help build a website for the collective and to apply for grants. After receiving a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council, the show did a small tour at public libraries in the area.
The work of Alphabet Arts is decidedly process based versus product based. Although West believes in creating a strong body of work, it’s not her main focus. The collective’s current project, Puppets & Poets, is being developed during a series of workshops. West had an open call for participants for the performance and 30 people showed up including dancers, puppeteers, poets and musicians. She put the artists through a “crash course” on poetry and puppetry and then gave them a series of exercises to help them navigate the relationship between the art forms. These exercises will work as entry points into the performance pieces in February. West stresses the importance of collaboration throughout our discussion noting that “being an artist in New York can be kind of dehumanizing. It’s so hierarchical.” She highlights the importance of listening to her workshop participants and getting to know them on a more profound level. There’s no rattling off credentials or ego tripping. This is a sincere exchange.
West continuously uses the word “play” when she describes the manner in which the participants of her workshops create performance pieces. She gives participants challenges with strict parameters and then asks them to play, as in experiment, explore and investigate their art forms in a manner that may, at first, feel foreign to them, but nevertheless push their work into unfamiliar territory. “You can’t make the Sistine Chapel in 15 minutes. That’s not what this is about. We’re reminding people to let go. It is about play and experimentation,” she says. Thus, “play” in West’s personal lexicon lends itself to a certain rigor; a careful and thoughtful process that involves throwing oneself into the deep-end of one’s art-making process and then reflecting on the art-making process to determine what works, what doesn’t and what material to recycle for another project.
What’s most impressive about West is her true-blue dedication to arts education and arts activism. “I feel like I’d be a really different person and have a really different life if I hadn’t found that outlet for myself,” she says assuredly. This statement makes me think about my own childhood. If I didn’t have the physical proximity of the dance studio, or my clean, lined journal to scribble in, I certainly know that I wouldn’t be the same person. Quite frankly, I’m not sure who I’d be.
More than anything, it’s comforting to see generosity injected back into art-making. Although West really understands how to craft engaging poems and produce and perform a puppet poem, she truly understands the importance of a dialogue and exchange between artists and audiences. She really understands what it means to give.
Puppets & Poets will take place on February 3rd and 4th at 8:00 pm at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, 421 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Tickets $10. For mature audiences. For more information visit www.bax.org